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Uncommon

Talents:
Gifted Children,
Prodigies
and Savants
Possessing abilities well
beyond their years, gifted
children inspire admiration,
but they also suffer ridicule,
neglect and misunderstanding
by Ellen Winner
WANG SHIQIANG

O ne evening a few years ago, while I was attending a con-


cert, a young boy in the audience caught my attention. As the
chopathology than about leadership and courage, researchers
also know far more about retardation than about giftedness.
orchestra played a Mozart concerto, this nine-year-old child Yet an understanding of the most talented minds will provide
sat with a thick, well-thumbed orchestral score opened on his both the key to educating gifted children and a precious
lap. As he read, he hummed the music out loud, in perfect glimpse of how the human brain works.
tune. During intermission, I cornered the boys father. Yes, he
told me, Stephen was really reading the music, not just looking The Nature of Giftedness
at it. And reading musical scores was one of his preferred
activities, vying only with reading college-level computer pro- Everyone knows children who are smart, hard-working
gramming manuals. At an age when most children concentrate achieversyoungsters in the top 10 to 15 percent of all stu-
on fourth-grade arithmetic and the nuances of playground eti- dents. But only the top 2 to 5 percent of children are gifted.
quette, Stephen had already earned a prize in music theory Gifted children (or child prodigies, who are just extreme ver-
that is coveted by adults. sions of gifted children) differ from bright children in at least
Gifted children like Stephen are fascinating but also three ways:
intimidating. They have been feared as possessed, they have Gifted children are precocious. They master subjects earlier
been derided as oddballs, they have been ridiculed as nerds. and learn more quickly than average children do.
The parents of such young people are often criticized for Gifted children march to their own drummer. They make
pushing their children rather than allowing them a normal, discoveries on their own and can often intuit the solution to a
well-balanced childhood. These children are so different from problem without going through a series of logical, linear steps.
others that schools usually do not know how to educate Gifted children are driven by a rage to master. They have
them. Meanwhile society expects gifted children to become a powerful interest in the area, or domain, in which they have
creative intellectuals and artists as adults and views them as high abilitymathematics, say, or artand they can readily
failures if they do not. focus so intently on work in this domain that they lose sense
Psychologists have always been interested in those who of the outside world.
deviate from the norm, but just as they know more about psy- These are children who seem to teach themselves to read

32 Scientific American Presents Human Intelligence


Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.
Pull Harder, Wang Yani GIFTED CHILD ARTIST WANG YANI from China painted at
a nearly adult skill level at the age of five, when she completed
this painting in 1980. As a child, she produced a prodigious
as toddlers, who breeze through college mathematics in mid-
number of works, at one point finishing 4,000 paintings within
dle school or who draw more skillfully as second-graders than the space of three years.
most adults do. Their fortunate combination of obsessive
interest and an ability to learn easily can lead to high achieve-
ment in their chosen domain. But gifted children are more cial attentiona myth that still guides the way these children
susceptible to interfering social and emotional factors than are educated today.
once was thought. In retrospect, Termans study was probably flawed. No
The first comprehensive study of the gifted, carried out child entered the study unless nominated by a teacher as one
over a period of more than 70 years, was initiated at Stanford of the best and the brightest; teachers probably overlooked
University in the early part of this century by Lewis M. Terman, those gifted children who were misfits, loners or problematic
a psychologist with a rather rosy opinion of gifted children. His to teach. And the shining evaluations of social adjustment and
study tracked more than 1,500 high-IQ children over the course personality in the gifted were performed by the same admir-
of their lives. To qualify for the study, the Termites were first ing teachers who had singled out the study subjects. Finally,
nominated by their teachers and then had to score 135 or almost a third of the sample came from professional, middle-
higher on the Stanford-Binet IQ test (the average score is 100). class families. Thus, Terman confounded IQ with social class.
These children were precocious: they typically spoke early, The myth of the well-adjusted, easy-to-teach gifted child
walked early and read before they entered school. Their parents persists despite more recent evidence to the contrary. Mihaly
described them as being insatiably curious and as having Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago has shown that
superb memories. children with exceptionally high abilities in any areanot
Terman described his subjects glowingly, not only as just in academics but in the visual arts, music, even athletics
superior in intelligence to other children but also as superior are out of step with their peers socially. These children tend to
in health, social adjustment and moral attitude. This conclu- be highly driven, independent in their thinking and introvert-
sion easily gave rise to the myth that gifted children are happy ed. They spend more than the usual amount of time alone,
and well adjusted by nature, requiring little in the way of spe- and although they derive energy and pleasure from their soli-

Uncommon Talents: Exploring Intelligence 33


Gifted Children, Prodigies and Savants
Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.
DRAWING SAVANT NADIA was a low-
functioning autistic child, whose mental
age was three years and three months when
she was six. But this sketch by Nadia, done
at age five and a half in 1973, exhibits a
command of line, foreshortening and motion
reminiscent of adult Renaissance masters.

pletes college as an early teenor even as a


preteenis likely to be globally gifted. Such
children are easy to spot: they are all-around
high achievers. But many children exhibit
gifts in one area of study and are unremark-
able or even learning disabled in others.
These may be creative children who are
difficult in school and who are not imme-
diately recognized as gifted.
Unevenness in gifted children is quite
common. A recent survey of more than
1,000 highly academically gifted adolescents
revealed that more than 95 percent show a
strong disparity between mathematical and
verbal interests. Extraordinarily strong math-
ematical and spatial abilities often accom-
pany average or even deficient verbal abili-
ties. Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins
University has found that many gifted chil-
dren selected for special summer programs
1977 HARCOURT BRACE AND COMPANY

in advanced math have enormous discrep-


ancies between their math and verbal skills.
One such eight-year-old scored 760 out of a
perfect score of 800 on the math part of the
Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) but only
290 out of 800 on the verbal part.
In a retrospective analysis of 20 world-
class mathematicians, psychologist Benjamin
S. Bloom, then at the University of Chicago,
tary mental lives, they also report feeling lonely. The more reported that none of his subjects had learned to read before
extreme the level of gift, the more isolated these children feel. attending school (yet most academically gifted children do read
Contemporary researchers have estimated that about 20 before school) and that six had had trouble learning to read.
to 25 percent of profoundly gifted children have social and And a retrospective study of inventors (who presumably exhibit
emotional problems, which is about twice the normal rate; in high mechanical and spatial aptitude) showed that as children
contrast, moderately gifted children do not exhibit a higher these individuals struggled with reading and writing.
than average rate. By middle childhood, gifted children often Indeed, many children
try to hide their abilities in the hopes of becoming more pop- who struggle with language
ular. One group particularly at risk for such underachievement may have strong spatial skills.
is academically gifted girls, who report more depression, lower Thomas Sowell of Stanford
self-esteem and more psychosomatic symptoms than academi- University, an economist by
cally gifted boys do. training, conducted a study of
The combination of precocious knowledge, social isolation late-talking children after he
and sheer boredom in many gifted children is a tough challenge raised a son who did not
for teachers who must educate them alongside their peers. begin to speak until almost
Worse, certain gifted children can leap years ahead of their age four. These children tended
peers in one area yet fall behind in another. These children, to have high spatial abilities
the unevenly gifted, sometimes seem hopelessly out of sync. they excelled at puzzles, for
instanceand most had rela-
The Unevenly Gifted tives working in professions
that require strong spatial
COURTESY OF ELLEN WINNER

Terman was a proponent of the view that gifted children


are globally giftedevenly talented in all academic areas.
Indeed, some special children have exceptional verbal skills as TYPICAL DRAWING by a five-
well as strong spatial, numerical and logical skills that enable year-old of average ability lacks
them to excel in mathematics. The occasional child who com- detail and is highly schematic.

34 Scientific American Presents Human Intelligence


Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.
THE COLLECTIONS OF THE EDISON NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
ET ARCHIVE, LONDON/SUPERSTOCK

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART is among the best- THOMAS ALVA EDISON exemplifies the unevenly gifted
known child prodigies. He began picking out tunes on individual. Edison was a prolific inventor, obtaining
the piano at three years of age; by four he could tell if a 1,093 patents for innovations ranging from the phono-
violin was a quarter tone out of tune, and by eight he graph to the incandescent light. As a child, he was
could play without hesitation a complex piece he had obsessed with science and spent much time tinkering in
never seen before. Mozart began composing at the age a chemistry laboratory in his parents cellar. Edison had
of five, when he wrote two minuets for the harpsichord. some difficulties learning, though, especially in the ver-
Even as a young child, he could play pieces perfectly bal areas; he may have had symptoms of dyslexia. The
from memory, having heard them only once, and coexistence of strong spatial-logical skills with a weak-
improvise on a theme without ever repeating himself. ness in language is common in the unevenly gifted.

skills. Perhaps the most striking finding was that 60 percent of erwise severely limited abilities. But the rarer savantsfewer
these children had engineers as first- or second-degree relatives. than 100 are knowndisplay one or more skills equal to
The association between verbal deficits and spatial gifts prodigy level.
seems particularly strong among visual artists. Beth Casey of Savants typically excel in visual art, music or lightning-
Boston College and I have found that college art students make fast calculation. In their domain of expertise, they resemble
significantly more spelling errors than college students major- child prodigies, exhibiting precocious skills, independent
ing either in math or in verbal areas such as English or history. learning and a rage to master. For instance, the drawing savant
On average, the art students not only misspelled more than named Nadia sketched more realistically at ages three and four
half of a 20-word list but also made the kind of errors associated than any known child prodigy of the same age. In addition,
with poor reading skillsnonphonetic spellings such as physi- savants will often surpass gifted children in the accuracy of
cain for physician (instead of the phonetic fisician). their memories.
The many children who possess a gift in one area and are Savants are like extreme versions of unevenly gifted chil-
weak or learning disabled in others present a conundrum. If dren. Just as gifted children often have mathematical or artis-
schools educate them as globally gifted, these students will tic genius and language-based learning disabilities, savants
continually encounter frustration in their weak areas; if they tend to exhibit a highly developed visual-spatial ability along-
are held back because of their deficiencies, they will be bored side severe deficits in language. One of the most promising
and unhappy in their strong fields. Worst, the gifts that these biological explanations for this syndrome posits atypical brain
children do possess may go unnoticed entirely when frustrated, organization, with deficits in the left hemisphere of the brain
unevenly gifted children wind up as misfits or troublemakers. (which usually controls language) offset by strengths in the
right hemisphere (which controls spatial and visual skills).
Savants: Uneven in the Extreme According to Darold A. Treffert, a psychiatrist now in pri-
vate practice in Fond du Lac, Wis., the fact that many savants
The most extreme cases of spatial or mathematical gifts were premature babies fits well with this notion of left-side
coexisting with verbal deficits are found in savants. Savants brain damage and resultant right-side compensation. Late in
are retarded (with IQs between 40 and 70) and are either pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes a process called pruning,
autistic or show autistic symptoms. Ordinary savants usual- in which a large number of excess neurons die off [see The
ly possess one skill at a normal level, in contrast to their oth- Developing Brain, by Carla J. Shatz; SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN,

Uncommon Talents: Exploring Intelligence 35


Gifted Children, Prodigies and Savants
Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.
BILL EPPRIDGE Life Magazine TIME, Inc.
CALENDRICAL CALCULATORS GEORGE AND CHARLES,
identical twins, are the most famous of such savants.
ling languagethe right side of their brains participates in
Each could instantly compute the day of the week on
tasks ordinarily reserved for the left. These children also tend
which any given date, past or future, would fall. The
not to be strongly right-handed, an indication that their left
twins were born in 1939 three months premature and
hemisphere is not clearly dominant.
retarded; their IQs tested between 40 and 70. Such an
extraordinary ability to calculate in an otherwise The late neurologist Norman Geschwind of Harvard
extremely mentally disabled child mirrors the milder Medical School was intrigued by the fact that individuals with
unevenness of gifts seen in children highly talented in pronounced right-hemisphere gifts (that is, in math, music,
mathematics but learning disabled in language. art) are disproportionately nonright-handed (left-handed or
ambidexterous) and have higher than average rates of left-
hemisphere deficits such as delayed onset of speech, stuttering
or dyslexia. Geschwind and his colleague Albert Galaburda
September 1992]. But the brains of babies born prematurely theorized that this association of gift with disorder, which they
may not have been pruned yet; if such brains experience trau- called the pathology of superiority, results from the effect of
ma to the left hemisphere near the time of birth, numerous the hormone testosterone on the developing fetal brain.
uncommitted neurons elsewhere in the brain might remain to Geschwind and Galaburda noted that elevated testos-
compensate for the loss, perhaps leading to a strong right- terone can delay development of the left hemisphere of the
hemisphere ability. fetal brain; this in turn might result in compensatory right-
Such trauma to a premature infants brain could arise many hemisphere growth. Such testosterone poisoning might also
waysfrom conditions during pregnancy, from lack of oxygen account for the larger number of males than females who
during birth, from the administration of too much oxygen exhibit mathematical and spatial gifts, nonright-handedness
afterward. An excess of oxygen given to premature babies can and pathologies of language. The researchers also noted that
cause blindness in addition to brain damage; many musical gifted children tend to suffer more than the usual frequency
savants exhibit the triad of premature birth, blindness and of immune disorders such as allergies and asthma; excess testos-
strong right-hemisphere skill. terone can interfere with the development of the thymus gland,
Gifted children most likely possess atypical brain organi- which plays a role in the development of the immune system.
zation to some extent as well. When average students are test- Testosterone exposure remains a controversial explanation
ed to see which part of their brain controls their verbal skills, for uneven gifts, and to date only scant evidence from the study
the answer is generally the left hemisphere only. But when of brain tissue exists to support the theory of damage and
mathematically talented children are tested the same way, compensation in savants. Nevertheless, it seems certain that
both the left and right hemispheres are implicated in control- gifts are hardwired in the infant brain, as savants and gifted

36 Scientific American Presents Human Intelligence


Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.
children exhibit extremely high
abilities from a very young age WHEN BRILLIANCE ISNT ENOUGH:
before they have spent much William James Sidis (18981944) was
time working at their gift. profoundly gifted as a child, reading
and spelling at the age of two, invent-
Emphasizing Gifts ing a new table of logarithms at eight,
speaking six languages by 10. By age
Given that many profound- 11 he was enrolled at Harvard Univer-
ly gifted children are unevenly sity, delivering lectures on mathe-
talented, socially isolated and matics to the faculty. But Sidiss father
bored with school, what is the had driven him mercilessly as a child,
best way to educate them? Most denying him any youthful pleasures
gifted programs today tend to and letting the media hound him. He
target children who have tested grew deeply bitter and resentful of his
father and lost all interest in mathe-
above 130 or so on standard IQ
matics after graduating from Harvard
tests, pulling them out of their
at 16. This talented young man spent
regular classes for a few hours
the rest of his life in mindless clerical
each week of general instruction
jobs, and his interests became obses-
or interaction. Unfortunately, sive and autisticlike: at 28 he wrote a
these programs fail the most comprehensive book on the classifica-
talented students. tion of streetcar transfer slips. He died,
Generally, schools are alone, from a brain hemorrhage at 46.
focusing what few resources
they have for gifted education

BROWN BROTHERS
on the moderately academically
gifted. These children make up
the bulk of current pull-out
programs: bright students with
strong but not extraordinary
abilities, who do not face the challenges of precocity and iso- letic are regularly left out as well. It makes more sense to iden-
lation to the same degree as the profoundly gifted. These chil- tify the gifted by examining past achievement in specific areas
drenand indeed most childrenwould be better served if rather than relying on plain-vanilla IQ tests.
schools instead raised their standards across the board. Schools should then place profoundly gifted children in
Other nations, including Japan and Hungary, set much advanced courses in their strong areas only. Subjects in which
higher academic expectations for their children than the U.S. a student is not exceptional can continue to be taught to the
does; their children, gifted or not, rise to the challenge by suc- student in the regular classroom. Options for advanced classes
ceeding at higher levels. The needs of moderately gifted chil- include arranging courses especially for the gifted, placing gift-
dren could be met by simply teaching them a more demanding ed students alongside older students within their schools, reg-
standard curriculum. istering them in college courses or enrolling them in accelerat-
The use of IQ as a filter for gifted programs also tends to ed summer programs that teach a years worth of material in a
tip these programs toward the relatively abundant, moderately few weeks.
academically gifted while sometimes overlooking profoundly Profoundly gifted children crave challenging work in their
but unevenly gifted children. Many of those children do poorly domain of expertise and the companionship of individuals with
on IQ tests, because their talent lies in either math or language, similar skills. Given the proper stimulation and opportunity,
but not both. Students whose talent is musical, artistic or ath- the extraordinary minds of these children will flourish. SA

About the Author

ELLEN WINNER was a student of literature phor and irony and, most recently, Gifted
and painting before she decided to explore devel- Children: Myths and Realities. I usually have sev-
opmental psychology. Her inspiration was Harvard eral quite different projects going at once, so I
Universitys Project Zero, which researched the am always juggling, she remarks. She is especial-
psychological aspects of the arts. Her graduate ly intrigued by unusual childrenchildren who
studies allowed her to combine her interests in art are gifted, learning disabled, gifted and learning
and writing with an exploration of the mind. She disabled, nonright-handed or particularly cre-
received her Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in ative. The goal is to understand cognitive
COURTESY OF ELLEN WINNER

1978 and is currently professor of psychology at development in its typical and atypical forms.
Boston College as well as senior research associate When she has time to play, Winner
with Project Zero. devours novels and movies and chauffeurs her
One of Winners greatest pleasures is writing 13-year-old son on snowboarding dates. She is
books; she has authored three, one on the psychol- married to the psychologist Howard Gardner
ogy of the arts, another on childrens use of meta- and has three grown stepchildren.

Uncommon Talents: Exploring Intelligence 37


Gifted Children, Prodigies and Savants
Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.
38 Scientific American Presents Human Intelligence
Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.